May 20, 2023

Yuichi kageyama 4ByFHyNdoD4 unsplashOne of my favourite books in the Swallows and Amazons series is Great Northern in which our heroes ultimately save the eggs of a pair of Great Northerns from a malicious egg collector.  The final scene in which TItty and Dick return the eggs to their parents is especially poignant.   Those two characters are interesting by the way, the mystic and the scientists but they play a critical part in the series over the more congenital twenties stereotypes of derring-do and domestic competence.  Egg collecting was the vogue for many years and was capturing, killing and mounting butterflies and other insects on pins or paper.  Eggs were blown the living material was sucked out of them to create an artefact that could be catalogued and displayed.  In seeking images for this post I came across an interesting story from the family who created one of the largest-ever collections of bird eggs, when that was still legal as a practice.  If you look you will see that historical collections have current value in understanding the impact of pesticides over time and there is a scientific purpose which at times, might even be considered noble,  But life has been sucked out, and what is left is just a collection, a memory of what was and could have been.

Now the context of this was a recent series of introductions to organisations which went along the lines of these people working with stories like you are, you should get in touch.  Now I have a few scars here and the reality is that many of those groups are like the egg and butterfly collectors.  They gather people’s stories and then they curate them.  There were major issues with this in anthropology at the turn of the last century where stories from the oral tradition, along with songs and pictures of indigenous people were captured, catalogued and displayed.  Yes, we don’t want to lose that material, but better still is to keep it as something that is alive and in a state of constant interaction with its environment.  The essence of the oral tradition is that it is a living emergent property of the interaction of the storyteller with their audiences over time.  Something that is lost when the stories are written down and frozen at one contextual point in time,

Then we get the question of who will curate the curators.   I’ve had an argument several times with journalists involved in story databases as they see anecdotes as the raw material from which they can create stories.  Or, in some ways worse, coach the anecdote creators in story creation.   In Complexity terms they chunk things up, they reduce the granularity so that meaning is frozen at a point in time.   Machine learning (it isn’t artificial intelligence) curates based on its training data sets and they in turn come from the dominant ideology of the time unless careful work is put into their construction.  In that context, the original design of SenseMaker® was to create better training data sets and it’s still something we can do.

I’ve seen the same with participative action research and narrative research in general where the facilitator or researcher has far too much engagement with managing who speaks and what is paid attention to, and/or the interpretation which is an exercise of power, a perpetuation of epistemic injustice.  And it’s always done with good motivation.  I still remember one person in a development agency who couldn’t cope with people interpreting their own material, he could do a lot better with text analytics and visualisation.  But where did those tools come from, and what assumptions did they make?  One of the key insights from working with indigenous researchers should be (but often isn’t) the way in which the methods of the North Atlantic determine the outcomes achieved.  There is value in that work, but not if that is all you do.

Critically in sense-making, the meaning-making takes place at the point of origin through the use of high-abstraction metadata.  We’ve found that people don’t interpret the text when they use signifiers, they add layers of meaning that were not present in the original.  By allowing people to find more stories like theirs, or stories which contradict their own perspective we create something which uses technology to increase interaction and mutation not reduce it.  By showing people how the same material is interpreted differently by people from different backgrounds we don’t put a pin through a story in a catalogue we make it a catalyst for change in a flow of meaning over time.

Worse with some of the new developments in machine learning we are allowing the machines of loving grace to curate our very existence.   Instead we need to curate and create the processes through which meaning can emerge in multiple contexts, not curate the meaning at a point in time, in the cultural context of the collector and curator.

Butterfly on a Flower is by  Kageyama on Unsplash; the Banner picture is cropped from an original by Cátia Matos

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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